By Ethan Stoetzer
Alyssa Nishijima has had what some would call an impressive collegiate career.
As a freshman, she and her fellow classmates entered and won first place at a food product development contest, beating teams of upperclassmen. She was a member of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Dean’s Student Advisory Committee, an executive representative of the Culinary Science Club and a member of the CALS Council. She’s also a Foreman Scholar and has made the Dean’s List every semester since she arrived at Iowa State University (just to name a few of her accomplishments).
Nishijima will graduate this month as a decorated senior with a degree in culinary food science. Reflecting on her experience at Iowa State, she is quick to say none of the things she’s accomplished or participated in were planned. In fact, her resume comes as quite a surprise to her.
“I feel like I’ve kind of surprised myself based on what I’ve done,” Nishijima said. “I came to Iowa State thinking I was just going to go to class and work on my grades, and I look back and see I’ve somehow done all of this stuff.”
For Nishijima, coming to Iowa State was about the only thing she had planned on her journey. Her interest in culinary food science began in early middle school. A close family friend, also a culinary food science Iowa State alum, served as a mentor for her. The two frequently discussed food product development and taste-tested foods from the grocery store. When Nishijima arrived at high school, studying chemistry and biology helped finalize her decision, as she enjoyed understanding the science behind the food she enjoyed and the desserts she liked to bake.
It wasn’t long before she put her passion to the test at Iowa State. In her freshman year, Nishijima and several classmates competed in the Mung Bean Education and Innovation Contest. With no guidance, the group beat upperclassmen teams with a recipe for a Mung Bean Sesame dessert. From that point on, Nishijima was ready to take any opportunity that presented itself.
A sense of passion and open-mindedness eventually culminated in an internship for Nishijima at OSI Group in Aurora, Illinois. There, she worked as a corporate culinary intern in the company’s culinary center, creating, developing and innovating product formulations. There, she was able to take advantage of a summer-long opportunity, where she developed and presented a product for market to the company’s management team.
“It was definitely a rewarding experience,” Nishijima said. “It’s always been my goal to work on a product and have it go to the market. This one didn’t go to market, but it was kind of like the first step into experiencing all of that. I was definitely overwhelmed, but Iowa State prepared me to be successful in the field.”
While her journey has been rewarding and unexpected, one of the her best experiences is her role as a mentor. For the past three years, she’s served as a peer mentor for the Fostering Opportunity and Collaboration through Unity and Scholarship (FOCUS) Learning Community, where she was mentored as a freshman. Nishijima attributes her open-mindedness to being a mentee of the group itself.
“It’s a great feeling to see how freshmen come in and how they kind of evolve and change throughout the weeks and into the semesters,” Nishijima said. “My freshman year, I was a mentee and I felt that my peer mentor helped me a lot. I was quite nervous about coming to Iowa State, you know, being in a new place. She helped me a lot. I really enjoyed that, so I wanted to go and do that for other students.”
Like her plan when coming to Iowa State, Nishijima isn’t sure where her future will take her. But so far, being open to opportunity and remaining humble has been fruitful for her. For now, she’ll return to OSI Group as a full-time culinary technologist.
“I’m nervous but excited,” Nishijima said. “As I was saying before, going into freshman year and not really planning on doing all of this stuff, it’s the same with this. I kind of intended to stay in Iowa after I graduated, and so I kind of surprised myself by choosing this job in a different state.”